There are almost 100 ghats (places with steps leading down to the water) bordering the Ganges River in Varanasi. The main group contains around 25 of them, and it extends from Assi Ghat north to Raj Ghat. A highly recommended, although touristy, thing to do is take a dawn boat ride along the river from Dasaswamedh Ghat to Harishchandra Ghat. A walk along the ghats is also fascinating experience (although do be prepared to be hassled by vendors). This Varanasi ghat guide will point you in the right direction of some of the must-see ones, from south to north.
You'll find Assi Ghat where the Ganges River meets the river Assi. It's located at the extreme southern end of the main ghats, and hence it's not as crowded and chaotic as some of the other ghats. However, it is an important ghat for Hindus. Pilgrims bathe there before worshiping Lord Shiva, in the form of huge lingam under a nearby pipal tree. A couple of the 5 Best Riverside Hotels in Varanasi are situated at Assi Ghat. In addition, there are quite a few interesting shops and decent cafes (head to Vaatika Cafe for pasta and pizza with a great outlook) in the area. The ghat is a popular place for long staying travelers. Dasaswamedh Ghat is a 30 minute walk away, along the ghats.
Chet Singh Ghat
Chet Singh Ghat has quite a bit of historical importance as it was the site of the 18th century battle between Maharaja Chet Singh and the British. There's an interesting old fort there, which marks the spot of his defeat.
Munshi Ghat is a favorite! It's one of the most visually appealing, and architecturally impressive, ghats. Sridhara Narayana Munshi, finance minister of the State of Darabhanga, constructed it in 1912. Munshi Ghat is actually an extension of Darabhanga Ghat, an imposing palace built in the early 1900s by the royal family of Bihar. These days, it's a popular bathing place for Muslims in Varanasi.
Dasaswamedh Ghat is the heart of the action and the top attraction in Varanasi. One of the oldest and holiest Varanasi ghats, it's where the famous Ganga aarti takes place every evening. The carnival of goings-on, with a constant flow of pilgrims, Hindu priests, flower sellers and beggars from dawn til dusk, is absorbing. It's possible to sit and watch for hours, and not get bored. There's also a hectic marketplace there.
Man Mandir Ghat
Another very old Varanasi ghat, Man Mandir Ghat is worth checking out for its exquisite Rajput architecture. Rajput Maharajah Man Singh of Jaipur built his palace there in 1600. An additional attraction, the observatory, was added in the 1730s by Sawai Jai Singh II. The astronomical instruments are still in good condition and it's possible to take a look at them. Head up to the spacious terrace for fabulous views of both banks of the Ganges River.
The most confronting ghat, Manikarnika (also known simply as the burning ghat) is the place where the majority of dead bodies are cremated in Varanasi. Hindus believe it will liberate them from the cycle of death and rebirth. Indeed, you'll openly come face to face with death at Manikarnika Ghat. Piles of firewood line the shore and the fires continually burn with the stream of dead bodies, each wrapped in cloth and carried through the lanes on makeshift stretchers by the doms (a caste of untouchables that handles the corpses and supervises the burning ghat). If you're curious and feeling bold, it is possible to watch the cremations take place for a fee. There are plenty of priests or guides around who will lead you to one of the upper floors of a nearby building. Make sure you negotiate and don't give in to demands for outrageously high sums of money.
Scindhia Ghat adjoins Manikarnika Ghat on the northern side. It's quite a picturesque place that has none of the grimness of its neighboring ghat. Of particular interest is the partially submerged Shiva Temple at the water's edge. It sunk during the construction of the ghat in 1830. The narrow maze of alleyways above the ghat hides a number of Varanasi's important temples. This area is called Sidha Kshetra and it attracts plenty of pilgrims.